Good Morning! What a joy and honor it is to be here with you, together this morning. I’m Ivy and with nervous delight I’m excited to share some thoughts with you this morning, around this series that we are in right now, called Prophetic Living.
I was talking with one of my kids about this idea of prophetic living this week— what does prophetic living actually mean? It was a conversation more for me than a quiz to my child! And some point in our conversation, I rolled prophetic living back a bit to focus on what a prophet is. What can we notice about people we regard as prophets? Their characteristics? What they did? And my child said, “Oh yah, prophets are people who light things on fire and then die.”
I laughed and thought about the truth and accuracy in that statement.
And the story of perhaps the craziest of prophets, Ezekiel, came to mind. One of the many odd and strange things he did was when he used a sword to shave off his beard, dividing his hairs into thirds. He set one third on fire. He scattered another third around the city and stabbed it with his sword. He threw the remaining third into the wind. And then Ezekiel took the few hairs he saved and sewed them into his clothing—burning some of those hairs too—and a fire will spread to all of Israel. (Ezekiel 5).
This was a wild, ridiculous move of Ezekiel. Ezekiel was trained in the Jewish priesthood and Jewish priests were commanded by God not to shave their heads, as the pagan priests did. And so for Ezekiel this was not only a bold, counter-cultural move, but one that symbolized the truth of how God would move—how he was going to preserve part of Israel as his chosen people.
I just think—wow! Prophetic living, there you go. And I look out at all of you guys with beards and I think—I don’t know? Who’s to say that picture of prophetic living is completely off the table? Maybe on your way home today, you should stop and pick up a sword somewhere!
Really though, Ezekiel’s crazy move aside, I think there is something to this sentiment of prophetic living—being a way of living that sets things ablaze, that may cause a combustion of our hearts and our lives, in a way that makes way for new miracles of rebirth and of new creation that God is doing right in front of us? And how do we get to be a part of that? How do we get to tap into what God is doing here and now, and step out with imagination, with action, embodying a new reality for ourselves and the people around us and for the next generation?
I’ve been a part of an experience here in our community, just as of late called Unpack. It’s a place created for people who have been particularly hurt and wounded by the church and who are seeking a spot of safety to let these truths hit the air. We spent 6 weeks doing just that—letting the truth of pain and the truth of one’s story, full of emotions and doubt, hit the air in the hopes that the power that hurt had would be released in that holy space of speaking truth with others . The only agenda we had was to not have an agenda—to create safe space without judgement, without a need to FIX or resolve, or to rescue. And the last week we all engaged in a burning ceremony.
I invited everyone to call out and write down the lies that had woven into their stories—about who they should be, or who God should be to them… And then also asked everyone to call out and write down a hope, a value—something they still believed could be true, even if they couldn’t see it as a present reality, but could name it as something they didn’t want to let go of or sacrifice as they moved forward to the days to come.
And then we burned it all.
And I thought, my gosh, no one is shaving their beards over here, but these people are fearless truth-tellers (that calls out lies), and fearless hopers, calling out a reality that might not be present, but still dreaming for better—and is this not prophetic voice? Prophetic living in the making.
This voice is within all of us—and it comes from within the landscape of following Jesus, to believe that the good things we know of him – can be true, clung to and realized in our day.
Prophetic living requires us to get to who we are, what we hold dear, what we care about. This directs how we move in the world, with passion and meaning. It requires us to start with this question like the one we posed at the top of the service: “what does a good day look like for you?” Because it teases out powerful information of what we value and what we don’t want to sacrifice in our lives. It gets to the reasons that you are alive—why you stay in this life! And it sparks—sets ablaze—a courage in us that comes from that understanding of ourselves and God, to see this precious, unique combo as something that has been entrusted to us — who we are and who God truly is, to carry out prophetically.
Undoubtedly this prophetic living takes this kind of knowing and imagination and calls us to break code from our usual rhythms and patterns — to press against dominant culture and power — and calls us into places unknown, where comfort isn’t on the table, but wild, wacky words like “justice” or “peace” or “HELP” are.
To live prophetically, is to be a good, life-giving, disruptive force in the world around us, and this, my friends, will require us to call out this most prophetic word, “help” again and again along the way.
I want to explore this word “help” today in a way that empowers us to not lay us victims to the reality of the world around us, and empowers us to make a different way — to live more “good days” with our hearts and hopes intact, to an end that draws us deeper into the love and wisdom of God.
Stranded By The Side of the Road
I’ve been thinking a lot of what people are known for, not just remembered for after death, but what they might be known for now, while they are living. I think of friends of mine who are currently known as authors, publishing their first books! I think of a friend who is known as CEO of a non-profit organization and who uses this platform to attend to the most marginalized in our city; another friend of mine who is known as a Dean of Justice, Equity and Transformation at a local college; other people in my life who are known to light any room on fire with hilarity and wit; and others known for the seering, KIND, attention that they give to anyone who is in front of them, strangers and friends alike.
I’m proud to say, that among some friends and family I am known for running my car’s gas tank to empty as often as possible and gloat in the triumph of coming out victorious all of the time!
That’s me on the left — “we are totally fine.” Actually I still think looking at this, why is this even an image, there’s easily ¼ of a tank of gas left—that’s not cause for alarm! Wait at least til the indicator is below the E!
But anyway I’ve had this life-long record of never running out of gas.
Until of course, I did.
This December, on a bitter, cold Sunday morning, I was driving here (to Reservoir) on 93 North. I knew that at some point the day before my gas tank light had come on. But that means nothing to me! It doesn’t scare me. And I was headed in early because we did this fun, interactive service called “Dreams & Nightmares” and I was “on” for leading it that morning. So you know, there were a few things on the line.
It’s weird when you run out of gas. I totally thought the car would herk and jerk – and sputter and make a loud commotion. Mine didn’t, cruising along the highway, and it just stopped making any sounds, and I coasted in complete silence, slowly decreasing in speed, and just sort of landed on the little median of an exit off-ramp.
I put my hazards on.
And sat there.
And I called Triple AAA.
And I waited alone, for help.
It’s interesting because we are all born into this world connected to another human being. Literally — through an umbilical cord that provides us access to all the nutrients and sustenance we need for life to us. And all of us usually within a matter of moments have that umbilical cord cut. And so begins at this moment our journey of living and dying and also for crying out for help! A baby’s first cry is essentially a cry for “HELP!” — loud, declaring need for connection, comfort, and sustenance. As we grow and mature, our explicit cries for “help” likely reach a heightened clarity in our toddler years — “Can you help me tie my shoes,” “can you help me get a drink,” “can you help me jump,” “can you help me go to sleep.” And from there most of us take a deep nose-dive into less clear exclamations of “help” — more veiled in outbursts of emotion — anger! frustration, blame, defensiveness, but without that distinct word, “help.”
Or it’s just complete silence — lives that have no blinking hazard lights of “help.” Lives look put together, comfortable, serene, in control, sanitized at all the corners.
I think about the mothers I named above (by the way, I’m using the word “mother”, very broadly—beyond the traditional definition and beyond gender). So despite all the reasons by which they are known in the wider world, they are known to me as the wisest, most prophetic human beings because they consistently ask for “help” early on, at the faintest inkling of a need, and they ask often – without an attachment of shame or guilt or self-consciousness weighing them down. And there is a vitality in their lives that I notice in the midst of ALL that they hold. And I can only think that the request for “help”- is what gives them this assurance, this connection to perhaps the most life sustaining nutrients they need — the belief that they are not alone, that there is always someone on the other side of their request for “help.”
Unlike these heroic mothers, “Help” has been one of the most under-utilized words in my vocabulary. I have not historically used it often or early. In fact, in times that I have practiced using it— it often came out sideways, aimed at someone as a scornful weapon, or just as straight-up judgement. Coming home from a busy day, walking into the house and seeing that it’s a disaster, I immediately feel tiredness, frustration, underappreciation, and I can’t name those things or ask for help in them. But I can act out of that unreleased need and say, “Scott, can’t you get the kids to help me!” Help comes out sideways.
And I think, oh, I’m relieved to see that their are stories in scriptures that reflect a similar dynamic of this word “Help.” So let’s look at the story of Mary and Martha on your program in Luke:
Luke 10:38-42 (NRSV) 38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.
40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
There’s so much written, so many thoughts about this poignant scripture. Often this story is used to compare and issue a value statement about someone who is contemplative or more active. To declare that Mary gets it “right”, she’s sitting with Jesus, the only place her attention should be drawn. And Martha, oh sweet Martha, she gets it “wrong” — she gives her attention to everything else in the space and misses the “better part” — Jesus — right there in her midst.
I want to give some credence to this take because it does seem wise. I think we can all be helped by slowing down and taking notice of Jesus in our midst. And also maybe there’s some reality that a lot of our lives require some action and stillness, and attention to have that more in balance is also beneficial.
I do wonder though if it helps to take in some of the cultural context of the setting, to see some different angles of this multi-faceted scripture: We see Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. It’s striking given the tenor that we are picking up — that there’s a great hustle and bustle in that house — she’s just sitting and listening. And yet it would really be striking, if we were a first-century reader, or even striking today to a reader in Turkey or the Middle East and many other parts of this world, because Mary is within the male part of the house. Rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. (N.T. Wright). If we were this reader, we would understand that Mary is breaking code! Cutting clean across one of the most basic social conventions — pressing against the dominant culture.
And if we read even more deeply, Mary’s “sitting at Jesus’ feet” in this context doesn’t just mean that she’s taking in all of Jesus wisdom and learning for the purpose of informing her own mind and heart, but she’s taking in all of this learning to move out into the world in order to be a teacher, a rabbi herself! (NT Wright).
And that lens, this simple moment of her being kind of a contemplative personality, is actually revealing that Mary is a major force — a good, life-giving disruptive force in this house, a prophetess in the making.
And witnessing that is undoing Martha.
For Martha this society she lives within, regardless of it’s inequity, its oppression, has conditioned her to hinge her value and self worth in how well she pleases others — what she can provide them, how swiftly and how well she cares for them — and in the constructs of a powerless system for women, I think Martha actually has used this role of hers to translate to some sense of power,a control she can have of her value and self worth.
And so in watching Mary break mold of this, I bet that Martha’s is in utter disbelief and outrage. How could this be? WHAT is her sister doing? She’s breaking all the rules. It’s one thing to listen to Jesus; probably Martha could have picked up bits and pieces of what he was saying as she walked in and out of the room. But to sit and listen and learn as a way to imagine for a new way ahead, to imagine a different path in your life, to be a force, as yourself, just as you are in the world with Jesus — this she has no gridwork for and she feels threatened.
It can be scary and maddening. When someone else reaches for more – when you don’t know how to. and specifically when you think you are doing the very right thing. Maybe, even when you think you are getting GOD right.
The Code-Breaking Side Pony-tail
When I was 9, I was getting ready to go to church one Sunday morning, and a friend’s little sister had slept over and wanted me to do her hair for church. So, I made a simple braid down the back of her hair, as one does, for church. And she looked in the mirror and immediately took it out and made her own sassy, side-pony tail. Hark! I was like, “What are you doing?” “This is not acceptable! You can not go to church looking like that!”
I remember the indignation I felt, at this move! And I was ferocious at myself, “why had I never thought to wear a side pony-tail?”, “why hadn’t I ever asked why a braid was supposedly better?” And this little 6 year old trollop just waltzes out of the house without a care, like this option was always on the table.
I was so uncomfortable with this break in code.
When people break code around us it can stir in us a lot of fear. A lot of discomfort.
Yet pursuing the reasons that we want to follow Jesus, the reasons we are alive, means saying “yes” to discomfort. Jesus, I think, wants Martha and us to notice this!
And yet it seems that we are more and more, culturally-conditioned to fear discomfort.
Who knows what Mary’s conversation with Jesus was as she sat at his feet. Maybe he said to her “Mary, what’s a good day look like to you? What are the reasons you want to do this life?” Let’s talk about that, let’s see where that can go. I think Mary did choose the “better part.” Because I can believe that her response to Jesus was “Lord, you say all these amazing things – of what days could feel and be like with you, but help me — I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know how to step out of my present reality, these social constructs.
My guess is that perhaps Mary was just as uncomfortable and fearful as Martha.
The “better part,” this little word, “help,” allows for there to be connection — an umbilical cord, even in discomfort, connection with Jesus, where I think Mary can imagine for a life that wasn’t even on the table, side-pony tails and all, and what emerged, what was created, what was birthed as she sat with Jesus, was all new and all broke code.
Martha didn’t know how to have a difficult conversation with Jesus or Mary. Perhaps it felt like too much of a confrontation of where her self-worth and value was hanging, and she didn’t know how to have honest self-reflection, “what could these live emotions indicate to me? And what do I do with them?” She didn’t know how to enact this better part, early on in her discomfort – this word “help.”
It’s hard and unsettling to do so! It’s easier sometimes to stay within the framework you’ve known, even though you know you might be miserable, easier to play the part, to keep the scene clean, the counters spotless, the guests fed, the dishes stacked — to maintain the status quo, to engage in a life that feels sanitized, a faith that feels sanitized, because this is easier.
God the Helper, Not a Fixer
One of my own contemporary heroes of life and faith, and a person I like to call friend, Rachel Held Evans said:
Some like to say that the bravest thing Christians can do is defend their faith, to stand their ground and refuse to change.
But it’s easier to defend our faith than to subject it to scrutiny.
It’s easier to dig in our heels than to go exploring.
It’s easier to regurgitate answers than to ask good questions.
It’s easier cling to our beliefs than to hold them with open hands.
It’s easier to assume we’re always right than to acknowledge we may be wrong.
It’s easier for Martha in her outrage to demand Jesus to fix Mary: “Jesus fix her, and get her to help me! Get her back in line!”
Fixing, is neater. Help is messy.
Martha feels threatened and it’s easier to assert a sense of power and control through anger and pointing fingers than to stop and still ourselves, and bend to the love of God, that might just be in the Living room with us.
Jesus loves and cares for our whole well-being, all of our life — not just “fixing a part of us,” He he cares about helping us heal all of who we are — our emotions, our frailties, our mis-steps and our good steps! Mending us together, from our insides, so our work, and roles and faith can be inter-connected. God wants us to be saved, because saved means inter-connected.
If we see God as ultimate “Fixer”, than there’s no margin, no release for us when we mess up the prescribed plan. And we enter and create systems where the only:
Fix for fear is blame.
The fix for weakness is shame.
The fix for anger is judgement.
The fix for discomfort is isolation.
The fix for a life seeking perfection is utter torment.
“Help” – is the better part, because it brings all of the parts of ourselves that we section off, that we want to hide out into the light and back together.
Jesus cares for Martha — her anxiety, her distraction — he wants to hear about it, what’s going on for her! He wants her to see him as ‘helper’.
Walter Brueggemann says, “the God at work in our life will determine the shape and quality and risk at the center of our existence.”
It matters to Jesus who Martha sees him to be.
You might know from stories I’ve told before that I hate being cold, like more than anything.
I feel angry when I’m cold; I take it personally when it’s below 50 degrees (so today, on mother’s day, I’m suspending my anger as it’s in the mid 40’s!!).
And so, I find it interesting that for the first few minutes of waiting on the side of the road, in my gas-less car in December I didn’t really notice the cold…
And I kind of went into action, as I was waiting.
I called Cate who was waiting for me here at the church, to let her know I’d be late.
I called triple A.
I called my friend Miriam, who was also headed in early to church, to see if she was ahead or behind me..
I sent a couple of emails from my phone.
I busied myself.
And then I noticed the cold creeping in the discomfort, it was 23 degrees. I found some crusty socks in the back of the car and put them on.
And I started in that discomfort to feel some things! Discomfort can talk to us, it can call to the surface feelings we’ve suspended or become numb to.
I started to ask questions of myself, and kind of put myself on the hook.
Mostly circumstantial questions to start: “when did that fuel light go on – was it yesterday or the day before?”
“Why was it that I didn’t stop for gas?”
And then this led to a little deeper line of questioning…
“Does this tell me something bigger about my life? “
“Where’s the margin in my life?” And I sat there and reviewed my week.
Reviewed the past month.
And what those days had looked like.
And then I noticed this rising indignation inside of myself for my own line of questioning, and yelled out, “Well this is just how life is!! I’m not going to stop being a mom to 3 active children, I’m not going to stop being a pastor, I love this job and this role, I’m not going to stop being a present, loving, kind, amazing, always grace-filled wife!!”
And I kind of worked myself up!
I felt like Jesus said, “Whoa whoa, whoa – why are you so defensive? I’m not asking you to change who you are OR sacrifice what you love!”
I’m just checking in to see if you need “help.”
Aaah, the better part: to ask God for “help” had not yet been on my mind, even stranded on the side of the road.
WHY IS it so hard for to ask for help?
For me it feels like I’m giving up. And giving up a lot!!!
I hinge my worth on what I can handle, how much I can handle, my capacity..
Then I feel like I’m throwing all I’ve worked for out the window.
It feels like defeat, admitting my limitations.
And that is uncomfortable..
And I don’t like it.
I’m sympathetic to Martha — she didn’t know how to unhinge herself from the system, as messed up as it was, that had given her a sense of worth. Me too.
To surrender to Jesus’ love is not giving up;it’s a place for holy release, admitting we are human. And that’s what Jesus, called us to be after all.
My friend, Rachel Held Evans, says that “The very condition of humanity is to be wrong about God. The moment we figure God out, God ceases to be God. Maybe it’s time to embrace the mystery and let ourselves off the hook.”. (RHE)
Rachel Held Evans: Prophet
Rachel Held Evans – wrote four books in the last 10 years. And she broke code all over the place! She wrote and spoke about the reality of being human. She called truth to power, of systems and people who couldn’t hold humanity with care! She called out truth for people, particularly the marginalized and oppressed who found themselves in the trenches of Christianity where light and hope were covered by “a mask of pretending” and “exclusion.” She created space, just space human space — where people with shame, and grief and fear and doubts and questions, too heavy to bear anymore, could unload and release, and call out for “help!”
“Rachel Held Evan’s congregation was online, and her Twitter feed became her church, a gathering place for thousands” (Elizabeth Dias, New York Times)
Her platform as a writer, and prophetic voice was undoubtedly a help to people to rebuild a sense of self, and believe in God, in new ways. But it was her humanness that paved the way for so many of us to find our own way again.
She died a week ago at the age of 37. And in her short life she set more things on fire than even my 10 year old son could hope to: 1,000’s of hearts that had been covered in stone, and yet she rolled those stones away, sending prophetic words into the dark — “you are ALL welcome at the table,” “I see you,” “you are not alone” — birthing and fiercely protecting new life in those hearts as only a mother who has cried out “help,” many a times herself can.
So, I guess my child was right, prophets do set things on fire and then die. I added this scripture, in John, to the program today because it’s the continuation of Martha’s story. I want to see where this outraged, mess of a beautiful woman ends up with Jesus, and because I needed it for my own discomfort and pain I feel in the loss of Rachel Held Evans.
John 11:17-42 (NRSV)
Setting here is where Martha and Mary have called out for “help” to Jesus for their sick brother Lazarus.
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (same response as Martha’s). 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me..”
So what happens here? Martha breaks code this time! She runs out of a house full of mourners, she leaves her duties and breaks the strict Jewish law, which would have been to stay within the house for 7 days, sitting barefoot on the floor.
We see her be sad and angry and fiery with Jesus!
We see her be fully Martha and we see her be fully human! “What are you doing?! Where have you been?! Lazarus would have been alive if you had gotten here earlier!” “Don’t take away that stone! There will be such a stench — he’s been dead four days!”
She lays it all out, doesn’t hold back with Jesus! This is what Jesus wants! When we are honest with ourselves, and with our emotions, we are close to Jesus who doesn’t say, “Clean yourself up a bit,” “or where have you been?” but who says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” You don’t have to wait for the End! I am, right now, resurrection and life to you, Martha.
Jesus helps us. He enables our well-being to live and thrive and flourish. And it starts with this messy picture of us with our hazard lights on in the cold, pulled over on the side of the road in surrender. And it starts with us running to him, with all of our raw emotions — gritty, messy, tear-stained cheeks — out of breath and bruises of faith, saying, “Help me, Jesus. Help!!”
And this is true, whether in our kitchens in the midst of doing dishes, or unto death.
And in that connection to Jesus, life to us, who is also tear-stained and flush with anger, meeting us, with us. He, himself who would soon cry out in anguish to God, unto his own death on the cross, “HELP.”
“Help” — the release valve of our humanness — into the hands and heart of love, where Jesus hands us the power and the value and the self-worth we’ve been so afraid we are losing.
Jesus says, “roll back the stone.” I like to think he invited Martha to be a part of that — engaging her active spirit, her want of “doing,” and in the process of being fully invited as her true self, with worth and strength, she rolls back the burden of shame and guilt and blame that has rolled over her own heart like a heavy stone.
And rather than encountering a dark tomb – full of stench and death..Martha encounters “the Spirit—like a womb, from which she is born again” (RHE).
She encounters life.
So may we die to the lies about who we should be or who God should be, or when we should ask for help, or shouldn’t ask for help. And may we be born again and again and again and again, as we evolve along this road of brave faith and surrender, discovering life at every turn, confirming the greatest belief that we are not alone.
Rachel Held Evans said “We live inside an unfinished story.” While we have today, we have time to imagine and act and we can hold space for those to cry for “help” and meet them, be God’s hand who reaches out, without prescriptions or plans to fix, but postures to love and to listen. This encourages the prophetic voice in all of us—to break code and say “help” often and early.
This is lie breaking
This is culture bending
This is prophetic living.
May it be so.
A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing:
When you feel guilt, shame, defensiveness or fear weighing you down, greet these as indicators of a need for help and say “help”, outloud as a release valve.
Practice calling out for help this week as a prayer to God. Practice this prayer as frequently as you notice the need and as confidently as you can. Consider the underlying need of this prayer and what care would look like to touch it.
In the legacy of Rachel and all the prophets and prophetesses that have come before us – could we, as Rachel prayed, remember our
God who mourned and Jesus who wept, help us to reimagine our communities of faith, our neighborhoods and ourselves to become places and people where everyone is safe – but no one is comfortable. Help us to hold one another to this truth. Help us to create sanctuary. Be with us in this work through all seasons, those of joy, of mourning, of rage and everything in between.